Justice in America: Public Defenders on the Front Lines
Josie and Clint talk with Jon Rapping, the founder and president of Gideon’s Promise.
On our first episode of season 2, we talk about one of the most important players in the criminal justice system, the public defender. What does it mean to be a public defender in America? Why do we have the right to counsel? And why is it important that all people have access to a zealous advocate, even those who may be guilty of serious crimes? We discuss all of this on this week’s episode.
We also talk to Jon Rapping, the founder and President of Gideon’s Promise and a leader in the field of public defense. He and his wife started Gideon’s Promise with the goal of providing training, resources, and community for public defenders across the nation. The organization was the subject of the 2013 HBO documentary Gideon’s Promise, and Jon received the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2014. He talks to us about why he began this organization, the continued challenges, and the fundamental importance of public defenders in the lives of their clients.
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Jon’s organization, Gideon’s Promise, here.
Gideon’s Army, the HBO documentary featuring Gideon’s Promise, is on Amazon.
More on the Scottsboro Boys, from PBS
Here’s a piece by The Guardian and the Marshall Project on the astronomical case loads public defenders have to handle with minimal resources.
This piece in the New York Times, about a man who was punished by a judge for working too hard, is a disturbing and necessary read.
Vera Institute of Justice has some interesting data about public defense on their website.
A great piece by Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker on what incarceration does to families. It tells the story of Robin Steinberg, the founder of Bronx Defenders, and the organization she helped start in Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years ago, which provides holistic public defense to women and mothers.
Jon Rapping: The calls I get the most from our young lawyers are calls where people just feel like everyone in the system wants them to process human beings and they’re trying to figure out how they resist that pressure. Sometimes they say, ‘Am I the one who’s crazy because I’m insisting that we have this hearing, I’m insisting that we address this motion or that we deal with this legal issue?’ And it takes mentors and it takes a supportive community to remind them, ‘You’re not crazy at all. That’s exactly what your clients deserve. You’re in a system that has come to expect less and you’re part of an effort to change that system.’
Clint Smith: What’s going on everybody. Good to be back for season two. In case you forgot, I’m Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint Smith: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and try to explain what it is and how it works.
Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you everyone for joining us today and joining us for season two. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, you can like our Facebook page, you can just find us at Justice in America and please subscribe and rate us on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you.
Clint Smith: So yes, we’re back. We’re super hyped to be back. There was a huge void in our lives without you all here. We love the response from season one and we’ve been trying to make season two even better, even more informative, even more helpful and we appreciate you all being along for the ride.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, we’ve spent the past few months prepping for season two, interviewing people, doing some research, talking and we’re super glad to be back here talking with you all or I guess talking at you all.
Clint Smith: So just in case you need a refresher, again, I’m Clint Smith and I’m a writer and a Ph.D. student who spent a lot of time teaching in prisons and whose research has centered on putting the criminal justice system in its larger historical context.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice. I’m a senior strategist at the Justice Collaborative and a senior reporter at The Appeal and most of my work focuses on the impact that prosecutors have on communities in America, particularly poor people and people of color. And this of course is season two of Justice in America.
[Clip of applause/cheering]
Clint Smith: Oh, snap. We started this show with a clip from our guest, Jon Rapping. Jon is the Founder and President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that provides training, coaching, professional development and community to public defenders all over the country. Jon is one of most brilliant people and is just incredibly committed to improving the public defense landscape by providing public defenders with the tools and resources that they too often don’t get. And he’s joining us to talk about our topic for today, which is public defense.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. We wanted to start season two off with something that we just didn’t get to last season, but just because it was not part of season one does not mean that it’s not important. On the contrary, public defense and public defenders are some of the most important players in the criminal justice system for reasons we’ll lay out for you during the episode.
Clint Smith: But first, before we get there, we’re going to do something a little bit new this season.
Josie Duffy Rice: So this season on each episode, we’re going to spend just a quick minute talking about a word or a phrase or a term related to criminal justice and the criminal justice system that we think is misused or misunderstood or frankly just useless.
Clint Smith: So much of the general public’s view of the criminal justice system is shaped by how we talk about these things. The simple words that we use that often hold so much weight, so we want to give you the tools to talk about the system differently and we hope that this helps to generate a different conversation. If you have thoughts or suggestions or responses to the chosen word for each episode, please let us know.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, we’d love to hear from you. So this week our word is-
Clint Smith: Criminal.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, criminal. Or a felon. Or a convict. Really any variation on that word.
Clint Smith: So often these words are used in context in very certain ways. Like they aren’t words you’d use to describe a friend or a family member. Instead they’re used when people say things like, ‘should felons be allowed to vote?’ or ‘guy in the viral video is an ex-con’ or you know, ‘that neighborhood is full of criminals.’
Josie Duffy Rice: And you know, we really don’t like those terms on this show to be honest. And the reason is because they reduce people who have been convicted of a crime down to what they’ve done wrong and honestly not even just what they’ve done wrong. Some people do things wrong and are never arrested. For example, if you jump the subway turnstile or you steal a bag of chips and you’re not caught, are you a criminal? Probably not. That’s probably not how people talk about you. That’s probably not how you think about yourself. Instead the whole word criminal or a felon or convict really depends on whether or not you’ve had contact with the system, what you were convicted of or what you pled guilty to rather than what you’ve done.
Clint Smith: And so part of what I always think about is how the very idea of who is a criminal or what constitutes as criminal behavior is a subjective idea. I think we often talk about it as this objective phenomenon in which someone is or is not a criminal. And for example, I’m a student at Harvard and when I lived on campus it was very clear that there were many, many students who lived at this top school in the world, top school in the country who sold and did and abused drugs in ways that they never had to fear they would be punished for from the state, from the authorities and that you can do something in a dorm room at Harvard and never fear the SWAT team coming to get you in a way that a kid maybe who lives in Baltimore or DC or Atlanta or wherever who lives in poverty, who is black or brown, often has to fear.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. Has to fear of the cops.
Clint Smith: Yeah, exactly. And I think part of what’s important to remember is that criminality is not something that is static. It’s not something that’s objective. It’s often a decision that’s made by people in positions of power and they make sort of subjective decisions based on who and what is criminal or constitutes as criminal at that specific moment in time and there’s not really any consistency as to how that’s applied.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. It’s funny because I have this memory of being in law school and being, you know, I took criminal law classes, also at Harvard and it’s, you would see kids doing stuff at a party on Friday and then on Monday you’d hear them talking about the need to lock people up with no self awareness of what it means that they in a different situation would be in jail and not in class. So. So I think that’s totally right.
Clint Smith: So the bottom line is that these words like criminal or felon or convict, they’re pretty one dimensional and they’re also static. So say a person commits a crime when he’s 22, serves his time, turns his life around. He can be described as a felon forever. Now is that fair? Or forget fair, is it actually accurate? These words are also too broad to really tell you anything. If you use the word criminal, does that mean he jumped the subway turnstile or is he a serial killer?
Josie Duffy Rice: Right.
Clint Smith: And especially in America, where there’s this broad spectrum of what we consider crimes, this can be a really reductive and unhelpful label in trying to understand who someone is and what they’ve done.
Josie Duffy Rice: So next time that you read or hear or say one of these words, we urge you to reconsider or rethink. We tend to use phrases like “person who has been convicted of a crime” or “incarcerated person,” but even then we only use it if it’s relevant.
Clint Smith: As an example of what’s not relevant, saying the guy in the viral videos is an ex-con. That’s bad. Saying the guy in the viral video has previously been convicted of a crime is also bad. Unless it’s relevant to what’s actually happening, we tend to push back against defining people by their record because people are so much more than that. They’re members of community, they’re members of family, they’re full human beings in the world.
Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. So that’s our first word of the week. Now back to our main topic, which is the public defender. And as we did during season one, we’re going to start out with the basics. So what is a public defender?
Clint Smith: Well, a public defender is basically an attorney provided to a defendant by the state. It’s an attorney provided, at least theoretically, free of charge. But we’ll talk more about the sort of dubiousness of that idea of “free” later. And the purpose of a public defender is to provide the services of an attorney for those who can’t afford it.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right. So it’s impossible to overstate the value of an attorney. If you’re facing criminal charges, having a lawyer is extremely important and I say that not just because I am a lawyer. But before we get into what all that means, what it means to be able to afford an attorney and who gets one and when, we’re going to give you just a little bit of history. So the right to counsel, that’s what it’s called, the right to counsel, it’s pretty fundamental to our criminal justice system. In fact, it’s in the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal cases defendants have the right quote, “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” It says other stuff too. Defendants have the right to a speedy trial or the right to an impartial jury, etcetera, but the right to assistance of counsel, ie the right to a lawyer is a big part of it. But what that means exactly wasn’t totally obvious until the Supreme Court ruled in some critical cases beginning with the Scottsboro boys case.
Clint Smith: Lets listen to Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and historian Wayne Flynt talking about the Scottsboro boys in a 2001 documentary called Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.
Bryan Stevenson: What Scottsboro teaches us is that you cannot underestimate the power of our history as it relates to race, as it relates to poverty, as it relates to sectionalism in the struggle for justice.
Wayne Flynt: The tragedy of this are nine boys lives hopelessly, eternally interrupted, sent cascading down roads of terror and imprisonment. No, I don’t think there’s any way to see this story but as a great tragedy.
Josie Duffy Rice: So that was a clip from PBS.
Clint Smith: You may have heard of the Scottsboro boys before, but if you haven’t, we’ll tell you a little bit about them. The Scottsboro boys were these nine black teenagers ranging from ages 13 to 20 who were arrested for raping two white women in 1931. Basically a group of white boys had tried to force these black boys off a train and failed. Instead it was the white kids who had been forced to get off the train and they were angry and embarrassed about it. So basically it’s payback. They told the sheriff that the black kids had attacked them. When the sheriff had the train stopped and searched, two young white women told authorities that the nine black kids had raped them. Well, actually, to be precise, they said six black boys had raped him and the sheriff decided that if six of them did, all of them did. So they were arrested and taken to a jail in Scottsboro, Alabama where they were charged for raping these two white women.
Josie Duffy Rice: And as you can imagine, white people in Alabama were outraged. You know, this is 1931, they are looking for blood. And the governor literally has to call out the National Guard to prevent these boys from being lynched. And so basically everything happens in a flash. They are accused on March 25th, by March 30th a grand jury has been called, by March 31st the grand jury decides to indict them. The trial begins a week later on April 6th, that same day, two of the boys are convicted and by April 8th eight of the nine have been convicted by all white juries. Only one manages to get a mistrial and that’s because he was just 12 years old. Then on April 9th, they were all sentenced to die in the electric chair and this was just about two weeks after they had been accused, you know, one day they are just kids on a train and two weeks later they’ve been sentenced to death. Although they didn’t actually eventually die because the case got taken up by the Supreme Court.
Clint Smith: Twelve years old.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.
Clint Smith: And something that’s really important to remember is that this is a part of a long history in post Civil War and Jim Crow America where black men and black boys were often falsely accused of raping white women or assaulting white women or even looking at white women and that’s used as sort of false pretense for mob violence. And that’s used as a false pretense for, for lynching, and a false pretense for putting black children and black men to death in the electric chair. And we should be clear, not just black men, because black women were certainly experiencing lynching and certainly experiencing false accusations in a similar way that had its own sort of insidiousness as it was tied to gender violence. But, but it’s important to understand what was happening to the Scottsboro boys and it’s sort of this sort of larger historical context of the moment.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, totally. And the thing is like they were subject to mob violence, to lynching and to state violence. And this is an example of where these boys, either were going to die by lynching or they were going to die by the electric chair. And that was pretty clear from basically the moment that they were accused.
Clint Smith: So if you can’t already tell, the whole trial was a sham. There was no physical evidence or anything. In fact, the evidence indicated that they hadn’t raped the girls and later at least one of the women recanted their testimony entirely, but this was Alabama and these nine boys had been accused of raping two white women. So it was no surprise that they were facing the death penalty. As Josie said, if it hadn’t been done by the state, it probably would’ve been done by a lynch mob. We can talk about the Scottsboro boys all day really, there’s a ton of backstory, years of appeals, and although many of them were thankfully eventually paroled, some of these men spent over a decade in jail based on false accusations. But one of the most ridiculous part of the trial was the fact that the lawyer appointed to represent these boys was very clearly, totally unqualified.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. At the time, the right to counsel, like we said, it was part of the Constitution, but it wasn’t very robust. But at the very least, every state was required to appoint lawyers in capital cases whenever the defendant was too poor to hire their own. So the judge appointed a lawyer from Tennessee to defend the Scottsboro boys, but he was a real estate lawyer and he had absolutely zero idea what he was doing and he didn’t put on a very good defense at all and he really hadn’t had the chance to build a case either given that the entire thing lasted like 10 days from charge to death sentence.
Clint Smith: So in 1932, the Supreme Court found this wasn’t gonna cut it. In Powell v. Alabama, the court held that the defendant quote, “requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.” The court basically said that if you don’t have effective counsel, you basically might as well not have counsel at all.
Josie Duffy Rice: So this was a major moment for the idea of access to counsel and it makes sense. It’s in a case like this where you can really understand the importance of a good lawyer. And we’ve talked other cases where lawyers come in who have no experience in criminal law and the defendant basically doesn’t stand a chance and who else is going to protect nine black kids facing death from the Alabama legal system unless they have the right to a good, effective, zealous advocate. Okay, so that’s the first important case. And there are some other important moments for public defense along the way, but let’s get to the big one. And that is Gideon v. Wainwright. This is my favorite case by the way, ever.
Clint Smith: It’s a big one.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. I wanted to name our son Gideon and my husband turned me down, but that’s how much I love this case.
Clint Smith: It would have been a good one. You chose a good one anyway.
Josie Duffy Rice: Thanks.
Clint Smith: So Clarence Gideon, almost Gideon Duffy Rice, was arrested in Florida in 1961. He was accused of breaking and entering and when he showed up to court he asked for a lawyer, but of course it wasn’t a capital case so he wasn’t entitled to one. So we handled his own case, did the opening statement and cross examined witnesses and all of that, but he was convicted anyway and sentenced to about five years, but he appealed his case to the Supreme Court on the grounds that he had been denied his right to assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.
Josie Duffy Rice: And in 1963 he won. So the court held that defendants accused of a felony were entitled to an attorney. Some states already provided any attorney to those defendants, but about 15 states did not including Florida and even in the states where Gideon would have been entitled to a lawyer this case was enormously important.
Clint Smith: This is why Gideon versus Wainwright is the single most important case about access to counsel in history. A report from 1951, a decade before Gideon was arrested, found that about 60 percent of all defendants facing felonies didn’t have a lawyer, but the case wasn’t important just because it found that people accused the felonies were entitled to a lawyer. It also found that if a defendant couldn’t afford one, the state had to pay for that lawyer. Before then, even for those who actually had an attorney, it was an open question as to who had to absorb the cost, so people made the state bar pay for it, others had the county do it, so on, so forth. It just depended on the place. But in some places, if you were poor and had an attorney at all, the attorney was probably representing you for free. In a lot of places across the south, including my home state of Louisiana and Josie’s home state of Georgia, even lawyers in capital cases weren’t entitled to payment, and what Gideon said was, look, poor people should always get a lawyer. It doesn’t matter what state, it doesn’t matter what jurisdiction, the state has to pay for that lawyer. This was what helped make public defense a real profession.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, so Gideon set the stage for the system we have today. So let’s fast forward 50 some odd years to now. What does public defense look like today? The answer is not great. States have basically failed to adequately resource and fund public defense across the country and more people than ever need lawyers and our system is just not doing a great job of giving them the tools that these public defenders need to do their jobs.
Clint Smith: So today the incarceration rate has more than quadrupled since Gideon was decided. What’s more around 90 percent of defendants now qualify as indigent. In other words, they’re poor enough to qualify for a public defender. It’s probably unsurprising then that public defenders represent more than 80 percent of those accused for crimes. That’s a staggering number.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah 80 percent. I mean that’s a massive number of people and I think that number really indicts not just our criminal justice system, but also the amount of people in America who are living without being able to even afford an attorney, and yet we just don’t give public defenders the resources they need to do their job well. Public defense is in a state of crisis. Here’s a clip from a Vice News episode a few years ago on public defense, and this is a public defender in Missouri talking about the problems he sees every day.
Public Defender: In a perfect world, it would be best if I had enough time to meet with each of them. Unfortunately, you almost have to pick and choose some of the cases that you spend the most amount of time on.
Interviewer: So this is basically we’re looking at your caseload here a little bit.
Public Defender: Yeah. Plus, that, that and that.
Clint Smith: So let’s talk about numbers. Every year we spend about $180 to $200 billion on our criminal justice system. About $80 billion of that is spent on prisons, jails, parole and probation. About $63 billion is spent on policing. And only about $4.5 billion is spent on public defense. $4.5 billion for 80 percent of people charged with crimes. Comparatively and proportionately, that’s nothing. We spend less than around two to three percent of the system’s money on defending 80 percent of its prisoners. And in a lot of spaces, that number continues to shrink. Take Missouri for example, public defense is funded totally at the state level there and Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 for indigent defense funding. As of last year, there were only about 350 public defenders in the entire state and the head of the office, Michael Barrett, said that they need at least another 300 lawyers to provide even the most basic minimal representation. In other words, they would need to double the staff to be able to do the most basic work needed to defend their clients. Barrett also said that every lawyer should have max 40 to 50 cases at a time, but in Missouri, public defenders had 150. On average, for serious felonies that aren’t murder, they spend less than 20 percent of the minimum hours recommended by the American Bar Association on each case. On murder cases, they spend about 22 hours fewer than recommended. Basically they have no choice but to do a less than stellar job because of how under resourced they are. It’s a systemic problem and basically every public defender in the state is struggling. The ACLU called it a literal constitutional crisis. Here’s another clip from Vice News.
Man #1: In addition to what we have here, we also got 115 inmates housed in other counties outside the facility because we don’t have the beds for them. The public defender’s office is not even two minutes from here but we can’t get them over here to communicate with them.
Man #2: There’s been a handful of times that I went to court and the public defender not even show up at all.
Man #1: We’ve talked to you more than than we’ve talked to our lawyers in a year.
Interviewer: How long have you been in jail?
Man #2: Fourteen months.
Interviewer: Fourteen months.
Man #2: Yeah.
Josie Duffy Rice: To be clear, we’re not saying that all public defenders are bad at their jobs because they’re under resourced. You know, there are countless public defenders out there who are doing an incredible job providing representation to their clients with basically nothing. And when you see them doing so much with so little, you really have to consider what they could do if they actually were properly funded, if they actually had a reasonable amount of cases. So in 2014, the state legislature finally approved a funding increase for the Missouri public defense system, about $4 million. Which would have been an important addition to the then around $34 million budget in the state. But the governor went ahead and just vetoed 80 percent of that increase after the legislature had approved it effectively keeping the system in dire straits despite the legislatures interest in relieving it.
Clint Smith: This is wild and it’s not just Missouri. In a lot of places, it’s really, really bad. The maximum that the American Bar Association recommends for a caseload each year is about 150 felonies and 400 misdemeanors per full time attorney, which even listening to that still feels like a huge number. But in 2007 lawyers from Florida had over 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. In Tennessee, six attorneys were responsible for over 10,000 misdemeanor cases between them.
Josie Duffy Rice: And this goes back to something that we talked about last season, Clint, about plea deals, right? I mean if you don’t have enough time to basically even meet your clients or talk to them, it makes sense that cases are pled out so quickly, so often and basically with little consideration. In places like Mississippi and Louisiana, defendants often sit in jail for weeks or months before they even see a lawyer. And in February of 2017 a report came out that said that in order to reasonably handle the 150,000 cases assigned to public defenders each year, Louisiana would need 1,800 full time attorneys. At the time it had 363.
Clint Smith: The level at which we’ve underfunded public defense in this country is a real travesty and it’s really a microcosm of how hard it is to be poor in the criminal justice system. Part of the reason that it’s so underfunded is because the general austerity of state budgets, almost everything has been cut many places and public defense is no exception, but there’s also just a general lack of appreciation for public defense and public defenders in the world and society that we live in where anyone who commits a crime is seen as a bad person. We’ve absorbed so much of the tough on crime rhetoric that’s been espoused over the past 30 years that to many people, what public defenders do seems almost immoral. Every one of the public defenders we know has heard stuff like, ‘I can’t believe you defend those kinds of people’ or ‘I can’t believe you try to help criminals.’
Josie Duffy Rice: And yes, sometimes their clients have done some unsavory stuff. That’s the reality of being a public defender, but there’s something really important to keep in mind here. A defendant in the criminal justice system is facing the entire government. It’s them versus the state. Prosecutors represent the whole state. That’s why they refer to themselves as quote “the people” in court, and that’s why the nomenclature of cases is, for example, “the people versus Duffy Rice.” So a defendant facing the entire government really only has one tool to equal out the vast power imbalance and that is their attorney.
Clint Smith: And that’s not an immoral job. That perhaps is the most important job in the world. Public defenders are a critical part of the defendant’s rights that are enshrined in our Constitution, but if your attorney literally only has ten minutes to spend on your case, how can you and they provide any semblance of a quality defense?
Josie Duffy Rice: I once wrote a story about a guy named Terry Williams in Pennsylvania who was sentenced to death after his lawyer barely put on a defense, and if you read the case, you’d think he had the worst lawyer in the world, right? This guy had only met Terry, a man facing death, one day before his trial and he failed him in pretty much every possible way.
Clint Smith: But there’s also a lot of evidence to indicate that it wasn’t his lawyers fault really. Public Defenders have only 24 hours in a day just like the rest of us, and I don’t mean to imply that every public defender is like his lawyer, some of the best lawyers we know are public defenders and are some of the best out there, but there’s no doubt that a reasonable caseload and access to resources would actually change the criminal justice system significantly. It’s unfair to ask them to do so much with so little and yet there have been no major movements to increase defense funding. And you’ve got to ask, why is that? To talk to us more about this is Jon Rapping, the Founder of Gideon’s Promise, so stay tuned.
Josie Duffy Rice: So we’re here today in Atlanta with Jon Rapping, the Founder and President of Gideon’s Promise and a Professor at John Marshall Law School and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be here with Jon Today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jon Rapping: Oh, thanks for having me.
Josie Duffy Rice: So you are just one of the leaders in the the movement to resource and improve public defense nationwide. And you started this organization called Gideon’s Promise. So can you tell us some general background on Gideon’s Promise?
Jon Rapping: Sure. So I started my career, is it okay if I go back to that? Because I think I kind of need to talk about how I started my career to really understand why we founded Gideon’s Promise-
Josie Duffy Rice: Totally.
Jon Rapping: But I started my career as a public defender in Washington DC, which is really one of the premier public defender offices in the country. It’s a model public defender office. I think what I probably didn’t appreciate as a young public defender in DC is just how rare it is for public defenders to be able to practice the way poor folks deserve. I spent ten years in DC. Uh, I had a manageable caseload. I had investigators and expert resources, training, supervision and I was able to, I worked seven days a week, but I was able to give people what they deserved. And then I moved to Georgia when Georgia started a new statewide public defender system. I came here to be the training director for Georgia’s new statewide system. A couple of years later after Hurricane Katrina hit, I went to New Orleans to help with the effort to rebuild that office.
Clint Smith: My hometown.
Jon Rapping: Is that your hometown?
Clint Smith: It is.
Jon Rapping: It’s a great city, great city.
Josie Duffy Rice: And now he lives in DC, so, just covering all the-
Clint Smith: Just following you around.
Josie Duffy Rice: (Laughs.)
Jon Rapping: (Laughs.) I spent some time in Alabama, Mississippi, and it was really my introduction to what public defense is like in the rest of the country pretty much and I started to meet these young, passionate public defenders right out of law school, right? They were every bit as talented as the lawyers I worked with in DC. They were just as smart, but they were going into systems that would very quickly beat the passion out of them and I was finding that within a couple of years, one or two things, one of two things would happen, right? Either they would quit or they would start to become resigned to the status quo. They would start to get shaped by systems that truly didn’t care about poor people. So in 2007, my wife and I founded Gideon’s Promise to be an organization to not only recruit some of the most talented future public defenders to these systems that desperately needed, not only to give them really top notch training, but also to support them as they became change agents in these systems. And that’s really what Gideon’s Promise is about.
Josie Duffy Rice: Can you just say briefly why DC has such a superior public defense service because it’s not just that DC is a metropolitan area, it’s that it’s federally funded, right?
Jon Rapping: Well, so there is a unique funding structure, you know, when the public defender office in DC is now probably about fifty, more than fifty years old. Uh, but when people sort of got the idea to develop this public defender office, it was developed as part of the DC superior court system. And so it’s actually a line item for the DC courts which is funded through congress. So, so that really is it. It’s a, it’s a congressional line item. And given everything that Congress is funding when it comes to criminal justice, I don’t think there’s a huge focus on just public defense in DC. So the DC public defender services avoided some of the, some of the sort of the funding threats that state systems have faced.
Clint Smith: We’ve spoken to so many people who are based in New York or based in California or even based in DC. And I’m curious, we haven’t explored the sort of landscape of criminal justice in the South to the same extent. And I’m curious about your decision, which seems like a very specific and intentional decision, to focus, to base Gideon’s Promise here in Atlanta and to have the South in mind when you’re thinking about what the context of this work looks like. Could you talk a little bit about why you did that and what was shaping that decision?
Jon Rapping: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, when I was a third year law student, I knew I wanted to be a public defender. Um, this was 25 years ago and all of us who wanted to be public defenders at that time, we were looking at the same sort of handful of offices. You’d consider going to DC, New York, Philly, if you wanted to go to the west coast it was San Francisco, but it never crossed my mind to come to Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, right? These weren’t systems that had well resourced public defender offices. They weren’t known for their ability to train and develop and support lawyers. And so all of these fantastic public defenders I knew were sort of steered to a handful of offices largely in the northeast. And when I was contacted by someone who’s been a hero of mine since I started thinking about public defense, Steve Wright, he gave me a call and asked if I’d consider coming to Georgia to be the training director for this new public defender system. And it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity, right? To be able to actually think about how to build a public defender office that had the same ethos, the same client centered commitment that I had become used to in DC. I think two years later when I went to New Orleans, it was a second once in a lifetime opportunity to start doing that in New Orleans and after being involved in those two projects the idea of trying to build an organization to do that more broadly across the South made a lot of sense. I think why the South? I think that historically the South has been a part of this country that has been most oppressive towards communities of color and disproportionately public defenders represent communities of color. You know, I also think along those lines Clint that I think of public defense differently now than I did when I was in DC. Um, you know, when I was in DC, I sort of understood my work as a public defender as, as kind of really providing high quality representation to individuals and individual cases. I don’t think I really thought as much about how that work was connected to an ongoing kind of system designed to oppress poor people and people of color.
Clint Smith: When did that thinking shift? When did you start making that connection?
Jon Rapping: I think when I moved to Georgia and I started seeing what was happening across this state and across the South, it really became clear to me that the work public defenders are doing is connected to the work that civil rights warriors had been doing for 50, 60 years, even longer. Um, and while people were doing really important work in the sixties, in New York and in DC, the front lines of that battle was in the South. It was people doing this work in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right. So back to sort of the question, art resources, and I think this is tied to what you’re saying about what you saw in the South as sort of a kind of coordinated effort to oppress. Can you give some concrete examples of what you see the people that are coming out of your program face in terms of lack of resources? I think Louisiana is obviously a great example because there have just been story after story of them cutting salaries more and making it hard to represent clients, but it does seem like in a lot of places people are set up to, they depend on their clients conviction to get their paycheck basically.
Jon Rapping: Well certainly there are systems where and Louisiana is a perfect example where poor people have to pay for their public defenders, for example. Uh, and that is a system where public defenders sort of are at conflict with their sort of their duty to their clients. But, but I think the biggest struggle that I see with our lawyers really is just that they have overwhelming caseloads. They don’t have resources and they’re going into systems that expect them to process. And so really the calls I get the most from our young lawyers are calls where people just feel like everyone in the system wants them to process human beings and they’re trying to figure out how they resist that pressure. Sometimes they say, ‘Am I the one who’s crazy because I’m insisting that we have this hearing, I’m insisting that we address this motion or that we deal with this legal issue?’ And it takes mentors and it takes a supportive community to remind them, ‘You’re not crazy at all. That’s exactly what your clients deserve. You’re in a system that has come to expect less and you’re part of an effort to change that system.’
Clint Smith: So what do those conversations look like in terms of young folks who come in wanting to to resist the sort of almost factory model that our justice system has come, I mean, we had people on the podcast in the first season who were talking about how the system would, there are scholars who think that system would sort of crumble and implode in on itself if 96 percent of cases didn’t end in plea bargains and plea deals and what will it look like in an effort to create a fair justice system you also are shifting the very paradigm of how our justice system is in some ways meant to operate. So I guess I’m curious what your conversations look like with a young 20 something who insists on wanting to bring every one of their clients to get a hearing, but also is working with this unfathomably large caseload and like what does that look like in your role as a sort of mentor?
Jon Rapping: Yeah. You know, when I first moved to Georgia and I started training young public defenders here, I would bring former colleagues of mine from DC down to help train and they would sort of tell these lawyers, ‘you have to do this,’ ‘you have to do that,’ ‘that’s what your client deserves.’ And these lawyers were in systems that wouldn’t allow them to do all those things and they started to feel like ‘I am being completely ineffective’ and it would literally drive them out of the work. And what I came to realize very quickly is it’s not realistic that we’re going to train these lawyers to give every person what they deserve tomorrow. We’re training these lawyers to start to chip away at the gap between what they can do and what our Constitution and our democratic promise demands. Um, you know, there’s a story I frequently, um, share when I talked to public defenders and I talk about there’s a, there’s a book I read, um, it was written by a man named Bruce Watson. It’s called Freedom Summer. And it was, Bruce Watson tells the story of that summer project in 1964 where young people from all across the country came to the South to join heroic civil rights workers in Mississippi to register people to vote, to build freedom schools, to help people pass literacy tests and Bruce Watson tells the story through interviews with these folks. Albeit 40 years later, and through this, this process, he tells a story of how these folks would come down to Mississippi and they’d be excited and they think they changed the world. And within weeks they would start saying, you know, ‘I’m discouraged.’ Their hope turned to despair. They started to feel like ‘maybe my family was right, maybe this doesn’t make a difference.’ And Bruce Watson, fast forwards 40 years to a conversation with Congressman John Lewis, one of the architects of Freedom Summer, and John Lewis said, you know, if it weren’t for Freedom Summer, Barack Obama wouldn’t be in the White House. Quite literally he was saying sometimes change is so incremental, people involved in it don’t even realize it’s happening. And so I get calls from young lawyers, they come to, we start out every class with this two week intensive bootcamp and they leave after two weeks feeling like they can change the world. They go back to their offices ready to change the world and within weeks the phone starts ringing and I’ll get the same call, it’ll be a lawyer saying, you know, ‘Rap,’ which is what everyone calls me, ‘I feel like I need to quit. I feel defeated. I’ve got 300 cases. I can’t be the lawyer my clients need me to be’ and what I’ll say to them and what all of us who are faculty and mentors say to them is, look, when you walk into a courtroom and the judge wants you to just sit down and shut up and help move cases and you stand up and you say, ‘Judge, I’m not doing it today.’ When you do that, you may not get the tangible result that your client deserves, but when you do it and your colleague does it in the courtroom next door and another group does it in the next county over and another group in the next state over, collectively you’re raising expectations about what justice means for poor people. So, so I’ll just end that by saying, when I think about how I think about this work differently than when I was in DC, when I was in DC, I didn’t appreciate how I was one of an army of advocates pushing to change expectations and change culture and change the narrative around how poor people deserve to be treated. That’s how I see public defense today.
Clint Smith: Which isn’t how it’s often framed when I think of my own friends who have sort of come out of law school and went into public defense it was, I think we are, we have this sort of, it’s almost this Atticus Finch-like sort of prototype of what a public defender you know is and that you’re going to go in and and bring these people to court who have been wrongfully convicted or wrongfully charged and through your individual heroism you will like change a person’s life. And that’s not to say that those things don’t happen, but I think the framework of, of recognizing that it is not singularly the individual battle you’re fighting in the context of your own client or even your own courtroom or even on that day or your own caseload, but that you alongside all of these other folks who are approaching the work with a similar paradigm shifting mentality that that’s ultimately sort of what shifts the Overton Window of how this work is ultimately done.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. It’s interesting because, so my first job out of college was at Bronx Defenders. I was Robbin’s assistant and Robin, if you’re listening, I’m sorry I was such a bad assistant, but, but it was such a life changing experience for me for that reason, which was, well first I had this um, this experience where I started with another girl who was someone else’s assistant and our second day there she said, ‘did you know that we defend guilty people here?’ And it was such a fascinating moment to realize she, she, she left like two weeks later because in her head that was so unbelievable and going into that office every single day and it was, you know, it’s a stressful and sad environment very often, but you, it’s tangible the impact that people, it’s having on people’s lives and on the environment, on the neighborhood. And again, Bronx Defenders is one of the places that is very well resourced, that is very well staffed. It’s not like being in Lafayette, Louisiana, but it is, I mean, that’s why I’m got into this work is walking into the public defender’s office and it feeling like the, the mere fact of having an advocate for some of these people was unprecedented.
Jon Rapping: So, you know, it’s interesting because Clint, you actually, I think your comment takes this to a conversation that I, I try to have as much as possible and that is this idea that we’re in this moment in time, I mean maybe we’ve been fading from it a little over the last couple of years, but we’re in this moment where people really are thinking about criminal justice reform and there is largely a bipartisan sentiment that we have to do something different when it comes to our approach to criminal justice. And I listen to these conversations and we talk about bail reform and sentencing reform. We talk about progressive prosecutors, but the one piece that is always missing from those conversations is public defenders. And I think the reason is because all these folks talking about criminal justice reform, there’s no doubt in my mind that they love public defenders and they think they’re important. But they think about them as you articulated that public defenders are kind of this Atticus Finch type hero who represent one person at a time, nobly and does it really well, and they do that and we have to applaud that and that’s really important. But what I’ve come to understand is that in addition to that collectively public defenders are the vehicle, the only vehicle that can give voice to 80 percent of the people in the criminal justice system and that that voice is absolutely central to any effort to truly transform justice in America.
Josie Duffy Rice: So can we, perfect timing “justice in America.” Can we talk about that a little bit more? Because a lot of people, well, I work in criminal justice reform obviously and I don’t work with clients and I find that this can be a very theoretical system for people after a while. So you know, tons of people even who maybe previously worked with clients, whatever, they are not doing that anymore. They are now in an office talking about policy, talking about legislation and you just, I imagine, start to forget what it actually means to go into a courtroom and represent someone. And I say that as someone who has not worked extensively in representing people. So I wonder because a lot of people in this field actually do know that public defenders have a really tough job. Maybe not outside of the criminal justice reform field, but internally they certainly know. So it’s interesting that it has not gotten more attention. And I wonder, I mean, I, I hear you say that you think part of that is because people don’t understand you know, what it takes, but what about the people who do understand what it takes? Why do you think there has not been as much of a movement around public defense?
Jon Rapping: So again, I, I didn’t even mean to suggest that anyone doesn’t understand what it takes. I mean, certainly I’m sure some don’t, but apart from understanding what it takes to do this really important work, I think the problem is without an analysis that connects public defenders to communities that are being oppressed and sees public defenders as a critical voice, I just think without that analysis, we don’t see public defenders is having a systemic impact. We see public defenders as being really important for individuals, but we see that as sort of a drop in the bucket when a policy reform that cuts sentences in half has such sweeping impact. And I just think that is a misguided or I should say incomplete analysis.
Clint Smith: So I’m just thinking about, you know, we’ve been talking about so many young people who come out of law school and who go through this sort of idealistic lens into public defense. But there’s also been this sort of movement recently, uh, encouraging those same people with that same sort of idealism to go into the role of prosecutor in a way that we haven’t necessarily seen as being sort of advocated in the criminal justice space at least as far as I can remember. And I’m curious how you think about that, right? What, how people, you know, with this conversation that we need more good, compassionate people who otherwise would go into public defense bringing those ideals into the prosecutorial context. Um, and that’s not to say clearly that they are mutually exclusive, but I guess I’m curious how you think of what that conversation looks like?
Jon Rapping: There was a, a video that I frequently sort of refer to that I saw a few years ago. It was, uh, a man who was elected by all the other public defenders in Tennessee to be their spokesperson. He was the president of the Tennessee Public Defender Conference. And he was at a budget hearing speaking on behalf of the public defenders in Tennessee. And he was asked a simple question, ‘do you have enough resources?’ He said, ‘let me tell you, I’ve got a five county district.’ He said, ‘I have five lawyers and one investigator.’ He said ‘last year we closed 4,000 cases,’ that’s 800 cases per lawyer, right? And he went on to say, ‘so let me assure you, there is one district in Tennessee that has enough.’ He said, ‘we’re blessed.’ He literally said, ‘I have seasoned lawyers. They’re very efficient. It’s a time saver. They’re good at processing people.’ Those were adjectives he used with pride to talk about his office. And what I always say when I talk about that video is I don’t think that man came out of law school 30 years ago saying, ‘you know what I want to do with my life? I want to help process 800 people a year into cages.’ He was shaped by a system that had come to find that that was all the justice poor people deserved. And so when someone says to me, ‘why don’t you encourage your public defenders to be prosecutors?’ I say, because we desperately need to groom our best public defenders to be the person sitting at that table when they’re asked that question, because that man’s response, he alone impacts 4,000 lives a year. Well, 4,000 lives directly, tens of thousands when you include family members and community. And then when you think about when those funders have to fund other offices in Tennessee, the impact that that mindset has on resources that public defenders across the state get. So I actually think that there’s nothing more important than making sure that when someone is accused of a crime, they have an advocate who can really speak for them. Now, when it comes to the prosecutor piece, there’s no question in my mind, prosecutors have been incredibly punitive and if we can find prosecutors that are less cruel, if we can find prosecutors that won’t do as much damage, that is a good thing, but I believe that transforming our criminal justice system really does require giving voice to impacted communities. Only public defenders can do that. When you look at all of the ills in our criminal justice system, whether it’s excessive force that police use on individuals, whether it’s processing people from arrest to sentencing without any real protections, we allow all that to happen because we’ve accepted a narrative that says some communities are less human. Some communities are dangerous, some communities are others. We have to change that narrative. We won’t really have justice until we change that narrative. And that narrative has changed when the individuals that are part of those communities have their stories told when their voices are amplified, that can only happen with public defenders. So. So I’m all for progressive prosecutors. I just think they’re less cruel. I don’t think they’re transformative.
Josie Duffy Rice: So related to your point about how we see these communities, one of the things I know a lot of public defenders talk about is when you tell people what you do, they again, like the woman I worked with, their response is ‘how can you defend guilty people? How can you defend people who have done these heinous crimes?’ You know, and I would like to hear from you, I’m sure you’ve had to answer that question many times, how you see, I find that a lot of people can get defensive about that or apologetic and I think that that always seems like the wrong response to me because this is like, I think public defense is God’s work, you know? And so how do you respond to that question?
Jon Rapping: So I mean, honestly, I think that, uh, Bryan Stevenson probably talks about this as well as anyone when he talks about how we live in a world filled with broken people. People, all of us, make mistakes. I often talk to my students when we talk about in criminal procedure, what it means when a police officer identifies an area of a high crime area and I say describe a high crime and they all point to, you know, Bankhead Highway. And I say, and I don’t have any statistics to back this up, I say I, I would suspect probably the highest crime area in Atlanta is the campus of Georgia Tech, right? My guess is every student there is drinking under age, some are probably smoking pot, but it’s not that we all make mistakes, but in our criminal justice system we choose to target certain people and punish them for their mistakes and not others. And I think that’s because we really don’t see them as valuable members of our community. So when you ask me how can we represent people who might be guilty, I really believe we represent people who may have made mistakes and it’s our job to help people who judge them understand the whole person so they can put those mistakes in context and not define the person by that one mistake. That’s what public defenders do is they give us the information about the person so we can make wiser decisions about how to respond. When we talk about punishment and sort of the way we treat folks in our criminal justice system, you know, we were talking before this podcast about your young children and I was talking about my children and I, I really think that everything I really understand about punishment probably comes from being a parent. But I have two kids and sometimes they violate the rules that I make and I, I don’t even want to say punishment, I try to help them understand there are consequences to breaking the rules and I fashion consequences that are designed to help them become better people, to help them succeed at life. I would never fashion a consequence that I thought would cripple them, would, would render them unable to move forward in a healthy and productive way. And I believe that those of us who decide to participate in the criminal justice system, we have an obligation to treat every person’s child in the system as though they’re our own. Of course there are consequences to violating rules, but we have to fashion consequences designed to help people get back on their feet, become stronger, become healthier, become more productive. And as soon as we start fashioning consequences that we know cripple people and families and communities, then clearly we don’t really see them as people who are as valuable as the folks we love. And that’s really, I think, the essence of the problem.
Clint Smith: So I think that, something that’s always, obviously that shapes the way that that all of us in this room think about the work that we do is thinking about the historical context and the social conditions that would put someone on a trajectory in which they are, find themselves engaging in criminal activity or find themselves the target of being indicted as a criminal in ways that other people aren’t. And I think that those examples are certainly more plentiful. I also think and where this conversation, to Josie’s point, I think it gets harder, is that, for example, the the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and I know that you’re from Pittsburgh and you had your Bar Mitzvah, I believe, at that synagogue. This man took the lives of 11 people and there is someone who is tasked with defending him. How do we think about and reconcile the work of defending those who have committed crimes or have been accused of committing crimes? And or in this case, have very clearly done heinous, terrible things, that have been inflicted harm on, on people and families and communities with the commitment to wanting everyone to have the best defense that they can have in a system that we know is broken. How do you think about those things together?
Jon Rapping: Well, I mean, I, I do have a close connection to Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life and so certainly that experience might be more personal to me than some of the others. But, but one of the most moving stories I read about coming out of that sort of week of events after that shooting was a story about the doctor who actually was the president of the hospital where the man who committed these shootings was treated and this doctor was Jewish and he was also a member of the Tree of Life. And he talked about how he walked into the hospital room and he talked to that man and he said, ‘I looked at him and I saw someone who was confused and who was scared and he needed help. And my job as a doctor isn’t to judge. It’s to give him help. That’s my job.’ Uh, I listened to that and I think to myself, there’s no question in my mind, most of us couldn’t do that. Thank God somebody can right? Most of us shouldn’t be doctors, but those who want to be doctors have to be able to do that because they have an obligation higher than any single incident, no matter how horrific. That’s true with public defenders. So we have a system that says as soon as we start deciding we can judge some people and punish some people without giving them the process we would want for our loved ones, for our children, as soon as we start doing that, it’s a slippery slope before the promise of equal justice is really more illusory than it even is now. And so what I think public defenders do and my feeling about representing people who do something even as horrific as that shooting at Tree of Life, is we have an obligation to make sure in those moments particularly that we don’t fall short on our promise of the protections we all want for one another because that’s when we are most called to protect them. That’s when we’re tried the most. The people that do that are heroes I think. And so it’s, it’s inspiring to me to be surrounded by folks like that every single day.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. I love that answer.
Jon Rapping: You know Josie so you wrote this piece, I remember-
Josie Duffy Rice: Uh oh.
Jon Rapping: That I love. No, I loved it in The New York Times. I think it was called “The Myth of the Progressive Prosecutor.”
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.
Jon Rapping: And I just loved the title because I’ve always struggled with that term “progressive prosecutor” because I think like what earns someone the label “progressive prosecutor,” is you’re a prosecutor who simply is reasonable when it comes to dealing with things that historically prosecutors have been excessively unreasonable about. So if you have a prosecutor who says, ‘you know what, I’m not going to charge people for marijuana. I’m not going to lock someone away or given them a record that will ruin their life for marijuana.’ We consider that person progressive. In the public defender world that’s just common sense. When we get a prosecutor who says, you know, ‘we’re locking up too many poor people pretrial simply because they’re poor. I’m not going to lock up as many. I’m going to lock up half as many’ that earns them the label progressive when that really is simply common sense and I would argue doesn’t even go far enough. And so I think what we see with progressive prosecutors oftentimes, and I don’t want to cast too broad of a net, but, but oftentimes I think with progressive prosecutors, they’re shrinking the system. They’re not charging the most minor offenses. They’re more reasonable about sentencing. And so they are, they are reducing the number of people who end up in the system or in cells. But while it might be that half as many people are in the system, those people still are exclusively poor. They’re still disproportionately people of color. That system might be less unjust, but we can’t mistake that for a truly just system and my concern about the movement to pour all of our resources into the progressive prosecutor is that we tend to think the progressive prosecutor is the savior and as a result we’re not focusing on all these other things like funding public defenders to give people the voice they need. I’m all for progressive prosecutors, but it’s got to be part of a much more comprehensive package of reforms that has to include advocates for the people who have been oppressed historically in this country.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I think on that same note, it’s set up to fail when we identify the prosecutor as the savior because the reality is, like you said, that they’re still playing this one fairly, not small, but specific role in the process. And I worry about the era of progressive prosecutors because if crime goes up tomorrow in you know X city or something terrible happens, you let someone out on bail and they killed 20 people. What the incentives to revert back to a risk averse space are so high in a way that they don’t have to be for all the other players in the system, theoretically. And speaking of the systemic pressures I think that has to do with how we’ve, in my head prosecutor should be saying ‘it’s not my job to keep everybody safe. It’s actually not my job. You should talk to your healthcare, your schools, your parks. This is not actually like, I’m not preventative, but here are all these systems that could be preventative, that should have that pressure on them.’ And I don’t think, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think that we are shifting kind of the pressure mechanisms yet in a way that, um, that has to happen.
Jon Rapping: I couldn’t agree with you more. I’d vote for you for prosecutor.
Josie Duffy Rice: (Laughs.)
Jon Rapping: No, I, I couldn’t agree with you more because I often tell my students, I teach a course called Criminal Justice Lawyering and uh, and I often tell my students that I share with them what I think prosecutor values should be. And I believe that prosecutors should not care at all about conviction rates. The result of a case it should be the right result after the prosecutor has ensured that all of the protections guaranteed in our democracy are met. And so a prosecutor should ferret out, police, they’re cheating, they should turn over exculpatory information, they should try their best to prove their case. And if at the end of the day a jury says not guilty, they should celebrate the justice is done. And we’ve gotten to a place where literally, unless the verdict is guilty, they feel like they’ve lost. And uh, so I agree with you, it’s not the job of the prosecutor to keep us safe. It’s the, well, it’s the job of the prosecutor to keep us safe in the sense that their job is to make sure all of the protections at the heart of our democracy are realized in the courtroom. And we know that’s not happening.
Josie Duffy Rice: So why do you think we’re like this? And by that I think we mean, you know, we live in this country that supposedly values liberty and freedom and reinvention even, I would say, and we have this criminal justice system that is so gargantuan in a way that is, so clearly does not line up with anything that we profess to believe. And so however you take that question to mean, I’m interested in why you think it is about us as a nation that has created this system?
Jon Rapping: So I, I think I don’t have an original answer. I, I, I don’t think anyone can answer that question any better than Michelle Alexander did in her book The New Jim Crow or Ava DuVernay did in the wonderful documentary 13th. I think we are a country that has always felt the need to other-ize, to view some communities as demons, as monsters, as others. And I think that, um, we’ve had systems of control put in place so that the uses could control the thems. And I think those systems have changed over time. Again, there’s nothing original about this. It went from slavery to black codes to Jim Crow and, and I think the criminal justice system is now seen as a way to control communities that we’ve come to believe, it’s our implicit bias, that says some communities are really dangerous and we need protection, so again, I think any attempt to overcome that has to include an effort to change the very values that shape us as human beings unintentionally. I know a lot of people who are really well intentioned. They are good people. They believe they’re egalitarian, but they are products of America and so their products of a system that sells us a narrative that says some people are better than others. That’s always included race, it’s always included religion, it includes sexual preference and gender and all sorts of things and we have to very consciously tackle that.
Clint Smith: So just to finish off, people often listen to this podcast and they learn all of this information and get a sort of political education and they are like, ‘okay, well what can I do?’ You know, not everybody is, some people listening to this are public defenders or prosecutors or what have you, but a lot of people are not. And are not involved in the criminal justice system directly. What would you say to someone who wants to have a positive impact on criminal justice reform or the criminal justice system and how would you tell them to get involved or what steps to take?
Jon Rapping: Getting involved, I think there are many ways to get involved, but ultimately I think that everybody involved in criminal justice who wants to have a positive impact, has to always remember that we don’t truly have justice if we don’t treat everyone with humanity. And so I think it’s as simple as reminding everyone you talk to when their instinct is to dehumanize that that’s not okay. When we call people defendants instead of Mr. Jones, we should be reminding people that’s a label that dehumanizes. When we call someone a criminal, we should remind people that all of us violate rules here or there. Um, and that criminal is really a term used to dehumanize. I think it really is about educating our children to go to communities where people aren’t like them and to grow up to understand that what we see as differences really aren’t differences at all. That we’re all part of the same community. I think those are some of the things people should do and when it comes to public defenders, I think we should recognize that we have to train our public defenders to see their role as challenging inhumane narratives at a return.
Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you so much Jon. This has been amazing and I’m so glad you could join us.
Jon Rapping: Well, thank you. It’s been great being here. I appreciate it.
Josie Duffy Rice: That was Jon Rapping, the Founder and President of Gideon’s Promise. It was wonderful to talk to you Jon. Thank you so much.
Clint Smith: Thanks for listening and coming back to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint Smith: You can find us at Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America, subscribe and rate us on iTunes. It really helps.
Josie Duffy Rice: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn and additional research support is provided by Johanna Wald. Thanks for joining us for season two and we’ll talk to you next week.